WASHINGTON – A group of Apache historic preservation officers is alleging that the National Park Service is improperly implementing the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act.
In a letter sent to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in September, the Western NAGPRA working group said the NPS is allowing improper cataloguing of sacred and holy tribal items.
NAGPRA is a federal law passed in 1990, which created a legal process for museums, federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return American Indian human remains and cultural items to respective tribes or lineal descendants.
Many of the authorities under the law are delegated to the NPS, which lies in the Interior Department.
According to the letter, instances have occurred where museums have identified items as “cultural items” when they should in fact be called “sacred objects,” “objects of cultural patrimony” or both, as set forth in the law.
The distinction is important, the officers said, because it affects the status of the items and could impact their ability to get the items back in a timely manner.
“An acknowledgment that items are both sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony is an admission that a museum, at a minimum, has items that are not rightfully their property, or, at a maximum, that a museum was at least party to wrongdoing,” the letter said.
“Such an admission would provide a measure of justice and peace of mind to Apache communities that were wronged so many years ago.”
D. Bambi Kraus, president of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, said the Apaches view the proper implementation of NAGPRA as a matter of civil rights.
“For a healing process to occur, they want the proper designation made,” said the Tlingit Alaskan Native. “I think that makes sense.
“NAGPRA calls for that process to happen, so it should be happening.”
Salazar has yet to respond to the letter, but the issue was scheduled to be on the agenda of a national NAGPRA review committee meeting held in Florida.
Earlier in October, Steve Titla, a lawyer for the San Carlos Apache Tribe, raised the issue at a hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources focused on faulty NAGPRA implementation.
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W. Va., said he and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D.-N.D., have requested a Government Accountability Office study on federal agency compliance with NAGPRA and research on how appropriated funds are being used.